The political and institutional dynamics that have defined the 118th Congress are building to a crescendo as recess comes to an end and the new fiscal year looms. This week we consider:
- How the far-right faction of the House GOP continues to maneuver successfully because of the procedural landscape it shaped at the start.
- The continuing challenge of managing members’ health in the absence of contingency plans and impediments to elderly members’ retirements.
- The full legacy of a retiring CRS legend.
- Some wacky stuff going on with bill engrossment and redactions.
This week the Senate returns. Although the House is still in recess until September 12, the Rules Committee is gearing up to move the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (H.R. 4367) to the floor and has set a deadline for the submission of amendments at noon Wednesday of this week. The Rules Committee is also getting ready for a possible meeting the week of September 18th to consider the State-Foreign Ops Approps bill and set this Friday as the deadline to submit amendments.
Leg branch data for the last 30 years. We have gone through all of the Legislative Branch spending bills for the last thirty years and lined up the spending items in a downloadable spreadsheet. The line item spreadsheet has sections for the House, Senate, and agencies, as well as tabs that adjust funding for inflation, allowing readers to see how spending on each line item has changed since 1994 in both constant and real dollars.
The House returns next week with leadership and some members divided on the desirability of a federal government shutdown with a dozen working days to go. Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried out a new argument with the holdouts during recess, claiming that a shutdown would impinge the House’s ability to begin impeachment proceedings against President Biden – which nobody seems to have bought.
The decision to resurrect the Holman Rule at the start of the 118th Congress has given those whose political interests align with the shutdown additional bandwidth to garner attention and slow the works. Three members – Reps. Paul Gosar, Majorie Taylor Greene, and Anna Paulina Luna – have proposed invoking it to cut the pay of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Air Force Major General Troy Dunn, respectively, to $1. Taylor Greene also wants to make a Price is Right bid (RIP, Bob Barker) on Special Counsel Jack Smith’s salary as he prosecutes former President Donald Trump.
The first skirmish of this intraparty funding battle may come if/when the Appropriations Committee considers one of the two bills it has remaining, the Commerce-Justice-Science package. Committee member Andrew Clyde announced last week that he will offer amendments to the Justice package to defund the offices prosecuting former President Trump and to cut money to the Fulton County district attorney. This may preview the type of amendment process that awaits on the floor if rules, as promised, remain even limitedly open.
The MAGA and anti-statist Republicans continue to hold leverage in this process because House rules granted them more power in January and because, particularly for someone like Taylor Greene, the ability to play to the small-donor audience through partisan media allows her to compete with business-funded members. They have considerable negative agenda setting power and continue to extract more and more from Speaker McCarthy as he backpedals to hold onto his gavel. The populist conservative faction understands there are still opportunities for McCarthy and the Senate to squeeze them and are using the fiscal year deadline to squeeze back. It is legitimate for members to push to assert their prerogatives to set the agenda, just as leadership has done for decades, even if we do not welcome the outcome. Members of other factions must find a way to adapt without over-relying on leadership, but they’re still not there.
Simply put, the populist faction has no reason to stop because they’ll keep getting slices of what they want, which, terrifyingly for democracy, looks more and more aligned with a Trump Restoration. They’ve already pushed McCarthy into the impeachment camp. If he stiffens, they can replace him with someone more amenable.
As we’ve been saying since last fall, this faction has figured out how to change the game with House leadership with the tools available to anyone willing to stick together and try. They’ve bet on themselves in thinking that none of these fiscal gambits will harm them politically and that they can cut to the front of the line and govern alongside Trump in 2025. We might not like their odds, but it’s hardly a lottery ticket.
What’s happening in the House suddenly is complicated by the health of senior congressional leaders. The replacement Speaker waiting in the wings, Rep. Steve Scalise, says he will be able to work through treatment for multiple myeloma. Sen. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, experienced another incident of freezing in front of reporters in the aftermath of a concussion. We wish both good health, but these are serious situations.
Congress continues to undermine its own stability and function through the dual refusals to avoid developing reasonable contingency plans for member absences and to interrogate the culture of staying on the job until the bitter end that pervades the institution. McConnell, who is 81, isn’t even in the top 10 of oldest members of Congress. Eight members (including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton) were born in the 1930s.
At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we argued that Congress needed to adopt processes and procedures to allow lawmakers to continue to represent constituents while avoiding the infectious disease risks of an airborne disease. Cancer treatments, maternity leave, or other longer-term personal situations aren’t substantively different from remote work en masse. In this case, we’re talking about the House Majority Leader, who will be deeply involved in the end-of-fiscal-year work.
McConnell’s situation is more complicated because multiple levels of the institution seem aligned with keeping elderly (and at times superannuated) senators in place. We’ve already seen the personal political phalanx Rep. Nancy Pelosi has deployed around Sen. Dianne Feinstein, including assistance from her own daughter. It wasn’t quite Act I of King Lear, but McConnell called his three most likely successors – the “Three Johns” – after the incident. None have any personal incentive to call on him to step down, nor trigger a conference meeting to remove him at the request of five members as Republican rules allow. We are curious, however, how some senior Republican women aren’t at least in the conversation to succeed McConnell.
The Office of the Attending Physician even seems to have some role in keeping the show going. Dr. Brian Monahan issued a brief statement last Thursday clearing McConnell after consulting with his “neurology team” and blaming the freezing episodes on dehydration and recovery from a concussion. I’m not that kind of doctor, but this seems more serious than a short paragraph allows. Additionally, what’s happening in private settings if this has happened twice in public ones and the senator is reducing his work schedule?
The context of the looming government shutdown intensifies the dynamics of the situation. Those who favor another round of hostage taking are starting to call for McConnell’s resignation, including Rep. Taylor Greene. Those who don’t, of course, will want him to stay as long as possible, in support of a different kind of hostage taking.
Like Senator Feinstein, the role McConnell plays in the Senate will carry on in the form of his office, which will maintain political alliances and working relationships. This scenario is all too familiar to Congress, especially in the Senate, where seniority is everything and careers take decades to build. Wanting influence in the Senate is an enormous personal commitment of time. The timelines involved also create large influence trees of former staffers who cycle out into lobby shops, the private sector, and other elected offices and incredibly important personal networks to people inside and outside the beltway looking to sway policy. These connections reinforce the message to stay. All of the personal incentives involved, on top of the structural foundations of the Senate like six year terms and equal representation of states, drive it toward gerontocracy. (It wasn’t always so.)
As in the House, it will take more “junior” members of the Senate insisting on change to its operations to break the grip of the elderly on power and perhaps convince a few infirm officeholders that they can — that they must — make way for someone else.
WALTER OLESZEK’S RETIREMENT
One legend of Congress is calling it a career: CRS senior specialist Walter Oleszek is retiring after 55 years of service. He started in 1968, when the office was called the Legislative Reference Service. His impact was immediate: we found a reference thanking him for working on the recently-passed Legislative Reorganization Act in the Congressional Record in 1970. As Kevin Kosar points out in his wonderful thread, Oleszek was one of the last senior specialists at CRS, a position that allows expert staff to chart their own course. That’s something worth noting as new leadership at CRS considers reorganization. He wrote books on several congressional reorganization efforts, an oversight manual for committees, and several essential books on congressional procedure and legislative process.
Over 55 years, Oleszek wrote prolifically for congressional audiences as part of CRS. If the public can benefit from his commercially-available work, it certainly can benefit from what he wrote via public funds. Unfortunately, CRS’s website only has 13 reports with his name in the author line. EveryCRSReport.com has 23 products, but that’s still a fraction of his historical reports. (Maybe all of CRS’s non-confidential reports should be available online???) He also testified often to congressional committees, including to the House Modernization Committee as it commenced its work in March 2019.
Conveniently, the Library of Congress is holding its annual forum about Congress.gov on September 13 from 1:00-3:00 in the Mumford Room of the Madison Building, which allows users to suggest improvements to the website, like for instance making all historical CRS reports publicly available. Register to attend the event in person here and online at this link.
NEW FRONTIERS IN ENGROSSMENT
As we all learned in middle school, when the House passes a bill it sends it to the Senate to consider. But the House has to do it. Jamie Dupree discovered something interesting this week in the House Calendar: the House has not sent four bills it has passed to the Senate, including H.R. 1, the Republicans’ energy bill that was a priority of Leader Scalise.
All the bills involve spending and revenue, which the House must initiate constitutionally but the Senate can use as legislative vehicles. Dupree concludes that Republicans are trying to limit the number of options for Senate Democrats to do that by telling the Clerk just to hold onto the legislation.
Speaking of bills in limbo, we’ve noticed that the House has introduced its own versions of two legislative branch reporting bills that have parallel versions in the Senate that are on the legislative calendar. The bills have identical titles: the Eliminate Useless Reports Act of 2023 (H.R.5301 and S.2073) and the GAO Inspector General Parity Act (H.R.5300 and S.1510). Congress.gov doesn’t note the companion bills for the House bills that have cleared committee in the Senate and it doesn’t have summaries for those bills, which should just be a control+c control+v away.
The US Capitol Police added three Office of Inspector General reports to its public portal last week, scratching the surface of its substantial backlog. For some reason, the documents contain redactions, even of information that is publicly available. One of the reports, which summarized top management challenges in FY 2023, blocked out recommendations made public in the previous year.
The OIG also released a report assessing outside employment and voluntary work which was significantly redacted and a lighter-edited audited financial statements for FY2021 and FY2022. It’s unknown who redacted information in these documents or why.
There are more than six hundred USCP IG reports, seven of which are now online. Keep going folks, there’s a lot more to do to catch up.
USCP Video from January 6th is the subject of a new policy released by the House Admin Oversight Subcommittee on Friday. Select entities will be able to review the video at a terminal through a process managed by the Committee. Entities viewing the video cannot make copies of the recordings themselves, but they can request clips of videos for an aggregate of 90 minutes per month. Videos released to any entity will also be uploaded to a “public reading room” managed by the committee, which also will include clips released before the House Admin Committee put these procedures in place. Not all requests for copies of the video will be granted, and the committee will employ a public interest balancing test in determining what to release.
Entities allowed to request access to the video include January 6th criminal defendants; those harmed on January 6th; some non-profit organizations; and the news media, including some news organizations not accredited by the congressional galleries. The Committee asserts that the limited grant of access to review footage or obtain copies of clips should not be interpreted as making the “footage a public record for any purpose, including but not limited to the common law right of access.” (We do not see how publishing video online would circumvent making it a public record.)
Related Resource: The House Admin Committee’s new policy on access to USCP video.
How factions can work productively: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brushes off some silly questions to explain how she’s willing to work with different factions in Congress, including Freedom Caucus members on issues where they have common ground, like congressional stock trading and privacy.
The GOP Steering Committee will hold a vote on Sept. 18 for the Approps Committee spot currently held by retiring Rep. Chris Stewart, BGOV’s Jonathan Tamari reported. The meeting has not been publicly announced and both the meeting and vote will be “private.” There is no official announcement of who is seeking the spot, but reporting suggests at least three candidates: Reps. LaLota, Chavez-DeRemer, and Edwards. We discussed the importance, role, and rules of the steering committees in last week’s newsletter.
ODDS AND ENDS
BUDS. A bipartisan group of House members have introduced a resolution to encourage more explicit bipartisanship, changing chamber rules to allow two members from opposite parties to be joint sponsors of a bill, resolution, or joint resolution. It’s called the BUDS Act, which is pretty great. It’s H.Res 668.
File under: bad idea. Several Republican members have filed a resolution to make it easier for members and staff to carry firearms on the Capitol campus. The antebellum Congress was an armed and violent place and there’s no need to return to the bad old days.
Back to school. Former Rep. and House Modernization Committee member Rodney Davis will be a resident fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics this fall semester. Former Senator Roy Blunt will be a visiting fellow.
IOP hosts a freshmen orientation for Congress that has drawn fire for its corporate-friendly curriculum, with heavy participation from CEOs and none from labor.
DOD Transparency. After analyzing a Report on Reports, the Brennan Center concludes that the Defense Department is not complying with congressional requirements to standardize required report submissions and Congress needs to take further action to ensure transparency of the agency.
After months of scrutiny, Justice Clarence Thomas has released his financial disclosure report for 2022, which includes four more trips with Harlan Crow.
The Levin Center is accepting nominations for its annual Carl Levin Award for Effective Oversight, which is open to federal, state, and local elected officials.
The Statement of Disbursements for the House of Representatives was published for the second quarter.
The White House is continuing to ignore civil society requests to make good on open government promises. A new letter tells the story.
OMB Circular A-11 2023 edition has been released.
~ Down the road ~
FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is set for September 7. More info here.
Internapalooza, a free, non-partisan orientation and welcome event for all interns, scheduled for September 11. RSVP.
Congressional Hackathon from 1-6 pm ET on September 14, taking in place at the U.S. Congress building. More info here.
Congressional Hackathon happy hour at 6:30 PM ET on September 14, hosted by ProLegis, Demand Progress Education Fund, and Georgetown’s Democracy, Education + Service (GeoDES) project. More info about the happy hour here.
Constitution Day, September 17th, will be celebrated by the Library of Congress on September 14 with a talk by University at Buffalo School of Law Professor Samantha Barbas about her book Actual Malice, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of segregations who tried to suppress journalists reporting about the civil rights movement through the use of libel lawsuits.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is scheduled to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee on September 20.
The Ridenhour Prizes, which celebrate whistleblowers, documentarians, and authors in support of government transparency and accountability, will hold its annual gala on October 25 at 6 PM. Subscribe to this link for ticket information.